There are many reasons why we should damn Tony Blair and his minions; the nonsensical and murderous Iraq War, the now-ubquitous presence of closed circuit television in our national life, the exemption for Formula One from tobacco advertising rules, and the ever-widening separation of the Labour Party from the trade unions. However, perhaps one of the most poisonous legacies he left behind was political vacuity. With the assistance of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, he ensured words became more than a conveyance of meaning or emotion, rather, they came to be perceived as prickly as cacti, to be wrapped in the cotton wool of spin and shielded from having any particular impact that might ever be construed as negative. Our politics have suffered because of this; we no longer have the likes of Lloyd George speaking as he did in Limehouse in 1909, verbally blasting the privileged opponents of his People’s Budget to smithereens. Outside the realms of satire, we make do with the occasional clever turn of phrase or passing witticism: but to paraphrase the Bard, we jest at scars that never felt a wound. Devoid of meaning, belief in the possibilities of politics has suffered, as the voting turnout figures indicate: a quick check on how voting participation has fallen since 1997 tells the tale.
Because we live in such a low calorie, non-alcoholic age, Nick Clegg’s initial remarks on marriage equality seemed refreshing, even bracing. Like many, I agreed with what he said. The opponents of marriage equality are bigots: there is not a single means by which same-sex couples can be excluded from this institution without a resort to prejudice. I have heard some Christian ministers and priests state that the union between man and woman is ordained by God; a closer inspection of the Bible indicates that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. St. Paul did have much to say in his epistles, but it’s worth noting that he never met Christ in person and thus wasn’t able to consult with Him personally. None of the disciples followed Jesus during his time on earth apparently expressed an opinion on the matter. What we do know is fairly concrete: Jesus’s new and everlasting covenant is based upon the commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you”. This is not a battle cry for exclusion, but rather a call for community, inclusion, tenderness and mercy, and above all, an acceptance of being made in God’s image in a particular way. To jump from this to excluding same-sex couples from the institution of marriage requires the springboard of prejudice.
Secular politicians can be just as bigoted. I’ve heard arguments which suggest that social order could be somehow disrupted by instituting marriage equality. This position has at its root an idea that society can somehow be set in aspic, which it never has been. Lest we forget, it used to be that homosexual acts were a criminal offence: Oscar Wilde was imprisoned and disgraced, Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was driven to suicide. This has shifted thanks to the tireless work of activists and a societal change of heart. We have moved on from a world in which Kenneth Williams felt tormented to the point of being hopelessly neurotic to one in which the audience is appalled by the barbarity of “Mad Men”‘s Sal Romano having to remain firmly locked in the closet. It is not the function of law to wind the clock back on these developments, rather to ensure equity and justice: if it does not perform this role, it is an instrument which perverts the natural order, more like Apartheid South Africa’s Pass Laws which placed a bar on individuals’ freedom of action because of what nature had bestowed upon them. As long as such perversions linger, liberty is curtailed. To suggest otherwise, again, is pure bigotry.
It is usually at this point that both secular and religious commentators leap beyond the end of logic: it’s stated that opening this particular can of worms will eventually lead to the legalisation of paedophilia or polygamy. First, there is no link: paedophilia is an abomination and a violation, because a child is not a consenting adult; it’s a crime, not a preference. To suggest a causal link is again, bigotry.
As for polygamy, there are already people living on polyamorous relationships; this is not illegal. Regardless of the intricacies of finding a legal way forward for these individuals, this should not act as a hindrance on two people of any gender who wish to make a commitment to each other. It would be rather like preventing people from flying to Atlanta because others want to go to the moon; the latter’s complexity should not deter the former. Nevertheless, there is a prejudice that serves as the insidious bedrock beneath the argument: anything other than a man and woman (and let’s be clear, this point of view tends to hold that both the man and woman in question have to be born with the anatomy appropriate to their particular genders) joined in holy matrimony is “unnatural”.
In other words, Nick Clegg (or whoever wrote the e-mail on his behalf) was right. He was also correct to state that bigots would use the convenient excuse of economic turmoil to prevent the equality agenda from progressing. Peter Bone, a Tory MP whose previous claim to fame was a call for every last Liberal Democrat minister to be fired in the last reshuffle so that a “real Conservative” programme could progress, was offended by Clegg’s initial letter. This should indicate that the bullseye was hit. So why did Mr. Clegg backtrack?
Again, we come back to the legacy of Tony Blair: through spin and couching language and softer terms and media management, we have a political culture that is averse to offending anyone, or rather, anyone that “matters”. It would be the brave and correct thing to do for Clegg to antagonise the likes of Peter Bone; but it is not perceived to be clever or wise. The supposedly prudent course is to speak truth sparingly, manage expectations, talk of “win win situations” to keep “all stakeholders on board”. One wonders what Lloyd George, rising to his feet in Limehouse in 1909 would have said if that had been his aim: would our politics have progressed out of the illiberal sewers of aristocratic privilege? Would we have the welfare state at all? As he roused the crowd and raised his fists in a bare knuckle bout of class warfare, he considered the truth and progress to be more important than applying a light touch to delicate sensibilities. Despite the best efforts of Tony Blair, it still is. So I agree with Nick in this instance, but only if he’s unscripted.